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Duncan Hollis

Dealing with Iran: A Primer on the President’s Options for a Nuclear Agreement

by Duncan Hollis

Without weighing in on the merits of any deal with Iran on nuclear matters, I’ll express some frustration over the rhetoric used in the current firestorm between the White House, 47 Senators (plus Governors Perry and Jindal), Iran’s Foreign Minister, and the 4th Estate on what kind of deal the United States might conclude with Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany).  There seems to be a great deal of confusion and conflation of issues in terms of the legal logistics of concluding any deal.  Now, maybe some of that is willful — obfuscation in service of each side’s political goals.  But, on the chance that some of those weighing in are under-informed on the actual issues and options available, I thought I’d offer a (brief) primer on what the actual options are in this case and how those options may limit/shape U.S. behavior.

For starters, it’s critical to differentiate the question of how nation states can reach agreement from the question of how a domestic legal system authorizes a State to enter into agreements (let alone what effect it gives them).  As such, I think the conversation needs to split off the question of (1) what kind of international deal this will be; from asking (2) what authority does the United States have (or will it need) to conclude such a deal as a matter of U.S. law.  Let’s take each angle separately.

International Commitments

When it comes to nation States entering into an agreement (that is, a mutual commitment of shared expectations as to future behavior), there are actually three basic options States can choose: (a) a treaty; (b) a contract; or (c) a political commitment.

(a) a treaty:  The treaty is a (relatively) well understood vehicle that rests on international law for its authority and effects.  Article 2(a) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) defines a treaty as

an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation

There’s some nuance to this definition, which I’ve explained in the Defining Treaties chapter of my book.  But for our purposes, it suffices to note that the VCLT lays out who has authority to make a treaty (i.e., heads of state and government, foreign ministers and those with full powers) and how they can do so (i.e., by signature, ratification, accession, acceptance, approval or any other agreed means).  Once formed, a treaty is subject to the general (and fundamental) principle of pacta sunt servanda — treaties are “binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.” Domestic legal obligations are not recognized as a basis for breaching treaty commitments, with one exception.  Article 46 provides that

1. A State may not invoke the fact that its consent to be bound by a treaty has been expressed in violation of a provision of its internal law regarding competence to conclude treaties as invalidating its consent unless that violation was manifest and concerned a rule of its internal law of fundamental importance. 2. A violation is manifest if it would be objectively evident to any State conducting itself in the matter in accordance with normal practice and in good faith.

Article 46, however, has proven relatively limited in its availability to States as an exit option; the one time it got raised before the ICJ, the Court suggested that States are not obliged to keep track of other states’ legislative and constitutional regulations on treaty-making and that a violation could not be manifest “unless at least properly publicized.”   Given the varied ways the U.S. authorizes treaties (discussed in more detail below), it’s hard to imagine a later Administration being able to invoke Article 46.  Indeed, if U.S. foreign relations scholars can’t agree on the ground rules for when specific treaty-making procedures are required (or prohibited), I’m hard pressed to say other countries should be able to identify a manifest violation in a case where the Executive branch pursues one specific procedure over others.

(b) a contract:  Interstate commitments can also be contracts instead of treaties. Contracts, like treaties, are considered legally binding, but differ from them in that contracts rely on domestic law as the source of their “bindingness” instead of being governed by international law as treaties are. Still, governments from time to time will do deals (e.g., one State selling helicopters to another) where the agreement specifically indicates its terms are governed by, say, the “law of New York.” This doesn’t seem to be on the table with Iran though, so I’ll reserve to a latter date more detailed analysis of how contracts and treaties differ. 

(c) a political commitment:  The third — and final — option for agreements among States is a “political commitment.”  Some scholars prefer to call it “soft law,” but for reasons Josh Newcomer and I elaborated in our article on political commitments, I think that term is a bit of a misnomer. The basic idea is simple — states can make agreements where the basis of their commitment does not rest on law, but “political” (or perhaps “moral”) forces.  In a political commitment, the fact of the promise itself motivates compliance rather than importing the sanctity of law and its legitimacy to do so. Non-legally binding commitments have now been a feature of international relations for more than a century, and include some pretty high-profile agreements, including the Shanghai Communique, the Helsinki Accords, the recent US-China Deal on Climate Change, and the Comprehensive Joint Plan that started this whole set of negotiations with Iran.  Moreover, as Josh and my article details, these commitments exhibit a tremendous diversity in terms of the form they take, the substantive commitments they contain, the extent to which they establish or implicate institutions, not to mention their varied relationships to other legal and non-legal commitments.

Traditionally, political commitments are seen as distinct from treaties in terms of being (i) more flexible; (ii) less credible because exit options are easier; with (iii) greater opportunities for confidentiality; and (iv) fewer domestic legal hurdles to their formation.  The actual variation in political commitments suggests, however, that these differences may be over-stated — today’s practice suggests that there is some significant overlap in what political commitments and treaties do.  For example, it may have been true at one time that treaties were necessarily less flexible than political commitments, but with the advent of tacit amendment procedures, treaties have gained in flexibility, while some political commitments have become more highly structured and inflexible in terms of the precision or normativity of their contents or the institutional structure in which they operate.  The one area where political commitments appear to hold a distinct advantage (or disadvantage depending on your perspective) is with the relatively weak domestic law attention they receive.  As Josh and I concluded in our article — a point reiterated earlier today by Jack Goldsmith and Marty Lederman, states like the United States have imposed few (if any) legal restrictions on the Executive’s ability to enter into political commitments.

Domestic Authorities to Commit the United States Internationally

In Article II, Section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution, the President has the “power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.”  If one were to take up the issue de novo, you might think this text requires that all treaties the United States wishes to conclude under international law have to proceed to the Senate.  In practice, however, Senate Advice and Consent has become one of only four ways the United States may gain authority to enter into a treaty (in the international law sense of that term).  Add in the possibility that the Iran deal might be a political commitment, and there are actually five options for how U.S. law might authorize a deal with Iran: (i) Senate Advice and Consent; (ii) a Congressional-Executive agreement; (iii) via an existing Senate Advice and Consent treaty; (iv) a sole Executive Agreement; or (v) a political commitment.

(i) Senate Advice and Consent Treaty.  If the United States concludes a treaty (in the international law sense of the term) with Iran and the P5+1, President Obama could send that treaty to the Senate for advice and consent, and, assuming the Senate agreed (with or without reservations, understandings or declarations), the President would then clearly have constitutional authority to consent to the deal.  Senate advice and consent is much less used compared to the past (less than 10% of modern treaties go through the Senate), although it should be noted that almost all past arms control agreements have received Senate advice and consent.  Still, given the general stalemate that has pervaded the Senate’s role in treaty-making the last few years, this seems a complete non-starter as a path forward, particularly with 47 Senators on record against virtually any deal involving Iran.

(ii) Congressional-Executive Agreement:  The President could gain authority to conclude a treaty (again, in the international law sense of that term) with Iran and the P5+1 via Congress instead of the Senate alone.  A simply majority vote of both Houses could enact a bill that with the President’s signature would become federal law and thus create legal authority for the United States to conclude (and perform) an Iranian treaty.  As a practical matter, congressional consent can be ex ante or ex post, but again, domestic politics in this case countenances against this being a likely option (even though today the vast, vast majority of U.S. treaty commitments under international law rely on one or more statutory authorities for their formation).

(iii) via an Existing Senate Advice and Consent Treaty:  Article VI of the Constitution treats both statutes and treaties (i.e., those receiving Senate advice and consent) as the “supreme law of the land.” Thus, just as a statute could authorize President Obama to conclude an international agreement with Iran, so too could a pre-existing Senate advice and consent treaty.  So far, I’m not aware of any nominations for an existing U.S. treaty that could do this (but someone might want to carefully parse the 1955 Treaty of Amity and Peace with Iran if it’s still in force (it’s not listed in Treaties in Force)).   Or, this might be a way forward if, as Marty and Jack hint, the Executive branch concluded the deal with Iran as a political commitment, but then had it endorsed by the U.N. Security Council pursuant to its Chapter VII authorities.  In that case, legal authority to conclude the deal might reside in the U.N. Charter itself since the Senate long ago gave consent, subject to a U.S. veto, to Security Council measures to preserve international peace and security.  As such, I don’t think we can dismiss this option as much as it might seem inapplicable at first glance.

(iv) Sole Executive Agreement:  The President may rely on his own Constitutional powers (e.g., as commander in chief) to authorize a U.S. treaty commitment.  In practice, this is rarely done as the State Department will usually try to also locate authority in at least one federal statute (even something as bland as Congress’ authorization of State Department responsibility for foreign affairs).  That said, the Supreme Court has endorsed the President’s ability to conclude certain treaties as sole executive agreements, although often in the face of congressional acquiescence, not outright opposition.  So, one might imagine this option would generate some inter-branch litigation if the Republican-controlled Congress rejects reading the president’s powers to include whatever sort of commitments are contained in any agreement the United States concludes with Iran.  Still, if the deal is to be a treaty under international law, this seems the most likely basis for authorizing it under U.S. law.  As Fred Kaplan noted yesterday, and Secretary Kerry apparently suggested a few hours ago, all the attention on treaties may have been misplaced and an entirely different deal might be at work here, namely a political one.

(v) Political Commitment;  It’s possible that the White House is looking for a political commitment with Iran and the P5+1.  If so, then all the machinations about forming a treaty under international law, and, just as importantly, the relatively robust set of domestic approval options for treaty-making, are inapplicable.  Although Josh and I argued that functional similarities between treaties and political commitments should require a Congressional role in the formation of at least some political commitments, I concede that Marty and Jack are correct that at present it’s hard to say this is the law of the United States.  On the contrary, today, it still appears that political commitments by their very nature do not implicate any of the domestic legal, procedural hurdles associated with treaties and thus may be a path forward for the United States to do a deal with Iran without worrying about the views of either the Senate or Congress as a whole.

That said, if the United States is actually going to argue it is concluding a political commitment with Iran and not a treaty, I want to conclude with two important caveats on the international and domestic aspects of such a deal that I’ve not seen mentioned previously.

First, a political commitment must be a political commitment for all sides, not just one side.  There’s much ambiguity in the U.S. and Iranian statements surrounding some of the negotiations, and it’s possible to read some of yesterday’s press briefing to suggest a deal where the United States would have only a political commitment while Iran was legally bound to perform its promises (see, for example, the carefully worded “verifiable and enforceable commitments” language used). That, however, is not an available option in international law.  Either the agreement is a treaty for all parties or its a political commitment for all participants.  I am unaware of any case where the nature of the agreement varies for the parties to it (that is it was a treaty for one state and a political commitment for everyone else).  Certainly, there have been disputes in the past as to the status of a particular agreement, with the ICJ and international arbiters called upon to weigh in on whether the deal struck gave rise to international legal obligations or not.  And it’s also possible for a treaty to contain not just legally binding commitments but also political ones (see, e.g., Article 1 of the Algiers Accords).  But, a stand-alone political commitment is, by definition, mutually exclusive from the international legal commitment that defines a treaty.  As such, once an agreement contains at least one commitment intended to be governed by international law, it’s a treaty not a political commitment.  Indeed, unlike contracts, treaties do not require consideration.  Thus, a treaty can exist where only one side (e.g., Iran) makes all the promises to do (or not do) certain things. Taken together, this suggests that, unless the United States is making some new, novel move to unsettle the existing forms of international commitment, its suggestion that it is pursuing a political commitment with Iran should mean that none of the commitments will give rise to any international legal obligations in and of themselves (there may be separate estoppel arguments, but let’s save those for another post).

Second, turning to the U.S. domestic context, it may be true that the Constitution does not require any particular approval procedure for political commitments, but it is also true that the Senate retains significant political power to pressure the President to pursue a treaty over a political commitment or even to insist on having a treaty submitted for Senate advice and consent in lieu of simply relying on Executive Power.  For example, before it became the Senate-approved Moscow Treaty, President Bush had apparently considered the possibility of doing the deal with Russia as either a political commitment or a Sole Executive Agreement.  But the Senate objected; and in a bipartisan push succeeded in having the deal submitted for its advice and consent.  Thus, one could imagine that if the Senate (or I suppose Congress as a whole) wanted to deploy their political checks on Executive power (think appropriations or ambassadorial/cabinet approvals), the White House might have to recalculate whether and how it wants to proceed with Iran here.  Nor is this entirely a U.S. problem; reports suggest that when the United States was looking to craft a strategic framework with Iraq a few years back, the Iraqis ended up concluding that the deal had to be done as a treaty (in the international law sense) since their Parliament was insisting on approving it in lieu of going to more streamlined political commitment route.  Simply put, just because there may be no extant constitutional constraints on the President’s ability to conclude a political commitment with Iran does not mean that there won’t be domestic negotiations over whether and how the United States concludes any deal involving Iran and nuclear matters.

So . . . now that I have that all off my chest, I’ll get out of the way and let the various actors continue to negotiate and debate the merits of the appropriate way(s) forward here.  I just hope that folks will do so with more attention to what the existing international and domestic law has to say (or not say) on these questions.

 

A Global Cyber Federation? Envisioning a Red Cross Movement in Cyberspace

by Duncan Hollis

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the future of cyberspace and how to deal with the coordination and collective action problems that are leading to the normalization of cyber insecurity. As I’ve written previously, I’m skeptical that the standard legal regulatory move — proscription — will work at either the individual or the State level.  Thus, I’ve tried to examine ways law can help regulate and promote resilience in cyberspace independent of identifying and punishing bad actors, including an idea for some sort of e-SOS system.  Much of the feedback I received on that idea involved questions on operationalizing any duty to assist.  Certainly, it could be something States (or other actors) adopt unilaterally; or it could be something States might coordinate in some form of international agreement such as a treaty (or more likely these days) some form of political commitment.  There is, however, another option based on one of the most successful humanitarian organizations in history — the Red Cross.  Simply put, why not have a Red Cross-like movement in cyberspace where interested entities (including CERTs) combine to coordinate and offer assistance to victims of severe cyberthreats impartially, neutrally, and independent of governments and their particular interests (e.g., surveillance)?

Together with Tim Mauer of New America, I’ve got a populist call for such a movement in Time today.  To be clear, the idea is not to hand over cyberspace to the Red Cross (even if it may have a clear role to play in future cyber conflicts).  Rather, it’s to see the potential of using the movement’s evolution, its structure and its norms (e.g., neutrality, independence, and impartiality) to improve resilience and cyber security at a global level.  Here’s the opening salvo:

Here’s an understatement: 2014 was a bad year for cybersecurity. The Sony hack was the highest profile hack of the year, a cyber-attack against a German iron plant caused massive physical damage, and the Heartbleed vulnerability was considered “catastrophic” even among experts not known to be alarmist. In the meantime, large-scale data breaches hit household names such as Target, Home Depot and JP Morgan Chase, with new reports emerging almost weekly. In the history of cybersecurity, 2014 marks a new low. As 2015 gets underway, news of the insurance company Anthem being hacked suggests cybersecurity is unlikely to improve anytime soon. That’s why conversations in national capitals, boardrooms, international conferences and on-line discourse feature a growing call to action.

The time is ripe for a bolder approach to cybersecurity, one not beholden to the existing politics of Internet governance nor linked to particular governments or intergovernmental organizations. We believe cyberspace could use a global cyber federation, a federation of non-governmental institutions similar to the role that the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and humanitarian assistance organizations more broadly have with respect to armed conflicts and natural disasters.

Obviously, there are lots of questions (and details) that require elaboration. For now, however, I’m going to push this idea and see whether it might get traction among those who would be in a position to actually participate in such a movement.  After all, if a few committed individuals like Henry Dunant could create the Red Cross, what’s to stop a similar idea from taking hold in cyberspace?

An Intersubjective Treaty Power

by Duncan Hollis

Ian Henderson may be mad at me.  He asked for fewer posts on foreign relations.  But he also asked for more posts on treaties.  I have a new paper up that tackles both topics — An Intersubjective Treaty Power.  For those of you who are interested in such things, here’s the abstract:

Does the Constitution require that U.S. treaties address matters of international concern? For decades, conventional wisdom answered that question negatively; The Restatement (Third) of U.S. Foreign Relations Law dismissed the very existence of an international concern test. In Bond v. United States, however, three Justices – Alito, Thomas, and Scalia – insisted on its existence, pushing the issue into the foreground of foreign relations law.

This article analyzes whether the Constitution contains an international concern test and what contours it has. I argue that Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas are correct – and the Restatement (Third) was wrong – on the test’s existence. Various modalities of constitutional interpretation – original meaning, historical practice, doctrine, structure, and prudence – offer evidence supporting some version of an international concern test. But I part ways with the Justices on how the test works. They and other proponents have tended to look for static or objective criteria to divide appropriate “international” matters from impermissible “purely domestic” ones.

In contrast, I argue that the international concern test is intersubjective. U.S. treaties can only be formed (or ratified, implemented, or applied) where the relevant actors at each stage (e.g., States in forming a treaty, the President and the Senate in ratifying it) share a belief that its subject-matter is international. Absent that understanding, the treaty will not be formed (or ratified, or implemented, or applied). Such views may coincide or divide depending on the context. Thus, the Supreme Court could agree that the Chemical Weapons Convention generally addressed a matter of international concern, even if they also agreed that the prosecution of Ms. Bond did not. Nor are these understandings fixed; issues need not be “purely” domestic (or international) for all time. Some topics such as human rights were once understood by States (and the President and the Senate) to be inappropriate subjects for treaty-making, but are now believed to be an essential aspect of international relations. Other topics such as Native American relations were once subject to extensive treaty treatment, but are now no longer accepted as appropriate subjects for U.S. treaties.

This article thus answers one of the longest running questions of U.S. foreign relations law. It confirms the existence of an international concern test, but locates its operation within the treaty process rather than in an externally-imposed laundry list of topics or criteria. In doing so, it provides an explanatory lens for a U.S. treaty practice that many label incoherent and suggests a need for more research on what conditions generate intersubjectivity (or its absence).

 

From Strawberries to Sony Pictures

by Duncan Hollis

One of my first posts with Opinio Juris remains one of my all time favorites — Strawberries versus Skin Cancer.  Looking back, that post marked a transition point for me as a scholar and an academic; in it, I began to allow myself to think more critically about my former employer, the U.S. State Department, even as I remained loyal to its employees and their mission. Certainly, the post benefited from my work on the Montreal Protocol while I was in the Legal Adviser’s office, but I also began to feel free to call out U.S. non-compliance where I saw it (and to flag the politically motivated rationales that lay behind it).  At the time, I figured this sort of post would typify my new academic self — detailed doctrinal analysis of specific treaty regimes especially in the environmental arena.

As it turns out, my assumption proved only half right.  True, I’ve ended up spending a lot of time thinking about treaties and their alternatives; it remains a core focus for my blogging and scholarship. But along the way, blogging also brought new lessons and served as a catalyst for my career in ways that I could never have anticipated in 2005.  What follows are nine takeaways from my blogging these last nine years:

1) Somehow I became a scholar of cyberspace, particularly questions of how to govern over (and within) this medium.  For those who have known me for a while, this is pretty surprising.  Until 2007, I openly described myself as a Luddite; my only claim to cyber-expertise was my (small) role in negotiating the final clauses of the Cybercrime Convention.  Today, I still can’t code, but I do think the experience of blogging gave me enough self-confidence to take advantage of opportunities that came my way to opine on how international law translates into cyberspace and offer some new ideas for dealing with cyber insecurity.

2) People find cyberspace issues really interesting; I had multiple friends and family ask me if I was going to blog about the Sony Pictures Hack (I didn’t).  In contrast, no one ever asks me to blog about treaties.  This makes me a little sad sometimes.

3) I love treaties; I like blogging about treaties, hosting symposia on treaties and treaty interpretation, drafting lists of the best treaties, and calling out those (e..g, the Supreme Court) that seem willfully ignorant of treaty terminology and processes.

4) International lawyer humor is not a thing, despite my semi-regular efforts to make it a thing.

5) International lawyers love underdog efforts to create a new state, especially if it’s a small pacific island.

6) I can never blog more than once a week, and I remain in awe of those who toss off daily blog posts (cough, Kevin, cough).  At least once each year, I’ve made a resolution to blog more.  But don’t hold your breath; I seem to be slowing down the pace of my blogging rather than speeding it up of late.

7) Major writers and Hollywood producers need international law consultants. For those of them reading this, e-mail me.  We still need to talk.

8) Opinio Juris has helped make the “invisible college” more collegial.  I’ve met so many people through blogging and credit it for starting several friendships that formed here on-line or via some in-person conversation about my blogging.  Meanwhile, Opinio Juris has become a place where we can opine on the state of the profession; celebrate our champions, and mourn the passing of our giants.

9) Blog in haste, regret at leisure.

Being a law professor can be an isolating experience, but Opinio Juris has done so much to make me feel part of a larger community; it’s made me appreciate that, whatever our substantive disagreements, there is among my co-bloggers and so many of our readers a passion for international law (both its potential and its pitfalls).

Let me close with a thank you to those readers that actually care about treaties (or cyberspace for that matter).  It’s your interest and dedication that make this enterprise worthwhile and what keeps me doing it (even if I don’t do it enough — see comment 6).  You’ve helped make this blog what it is and you offer the promise of it continuing to grow and flourish in depth and breadth for years to come.

Congratulations to Dean Andrew Guzman

by Duncan Hollis

I’m pleased to note that Andrew Guzman is leaving Berkeley Law to become Dean of USC’s Gould School of Law (see here for the USC announcement, and here for Berkeley’s take).

Andrew’s a renowned scholar of international law, with major works on international trade, regulation, investment and public international law, including some seminal work on using rationale choice theory to explain the international legal order.  I’m deeply indebted to his scholarship on bilateral investment treaties (this one in particular) and soft law for influencing my own work.  Plus, to top it all off, he’s found time over the years to guest blog for us a few times.

Congratulations to Andrew — it’ll be good to have another international lawyer in a major leadership position in U.S. legal education.

Alfred P. Rubin: The Best Professor I Ever Had

by Duncan Hollis

For those of us fortunate enough to end up with a career in international law, we all have our mentors, our guiding lights.  Mine was Professor Alfred P. Rubin of the Fletcher School.  He died last week.  I write to express my condolences to his family and friends and offer a few words on his influence on my life as well as the whole Fletcher community, where he taught for 30 years.  Simply put, I would not be an international lawyer — let alone a professor of international law — had Professor Rubin not pushed, encouraged, and inspired me onto my current path.  He was the best professor I ever saw grace a classroom.

Truth be told, when I arrived at Fletcher in the Fall of 1993, I had no expectations of a career in international law.  I had enjoyed studying it as an undergraduate at Bowdoin with Allen Springer (a former student of Professor Rubin as it turned out).  But I’d applied to Fletcher to study Japan, not law; I had four years of Japanese language classes under my belt and had just finished a summer internship in Osaka.  To complete my joint degree, however, I still needed four law-related courses. LAW 200: The International Legal Order looked interesting.  I was a bit wary of an early morning class 3 days a week, including Fridays, plus an unusual year-long course structure. Still, Rubin’s classes were legendary so I decided to take it during my first semester.

In what was a trademark for his contrarian demeanor, Professor Rubin started off our first class with a simple, but powerful, challenge — insisting that there is no such thing as human rights.  An Australian classmate took the bait, and responded that they must exist, to which Professor Rubin pushed back, asking if human rights existed as law or morality.  That generated a fairly intense discussion on what law “is”, who should decide the law’s contents and by what processes.  Fifty minutes later, I was hooked.  LAW 200 became my favorite class. I would actually wake up happy on class days, eager to see what the morning’s discussion might hold — the Trent Affair’s illumination of customary international law, the divine law origins of treaties (which I’ve made use of subsequently), or one of my favorite casesMortensen v. Peters. We wrestled with the (in)consistency of the ICJ’s approach to the South Africa question, the meaning of “genuine and effective links” for citizenship, plus older chestnuts like the Lotus case. Along the way, Professor Rubin moved us beyond doctrine to legal theory, asking us to work through various iterations of positivist and naturalist methods in original and neo-formulations.  We didn’t just read Hart, we went back to Kelsen (reading Kelsen being fairly atypical in American legal education).

The Spring semester brought piracy and thornier topics like recognition, succession, jurisdiction, and conflicts of law.  A few years later, Monroe Leigh (who along with Cynthia Lichtenstein were my other early mentors) took me on as his associate in part because I’d invoked the Fruehauf case from Rubin’s class to advise a client.  As the semester progressed, my classmates and I debated whether Professor Rubin’s tears in discussing the legality of the bombing of Hiroshima were real (they were) and marveled at how he cared about the “law” as a concept and detested hypocrisy in any form.  None of us will ever forget how Rubin ended the year — re-enacting the scene from A Man for All Seasons where Sir Thomas More responds to William Roper’s call for an arrest even if it means cutting a road through the law to get after the Devil:

Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, And if you cut them down, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

Two decades later, I’m still trying to figure out Professor Rubin’s secret ingredient — the persistent Socratic dialogues, the deep dives into doctrine, the marshaling of legal theory in concrete cases, or that undeniable passion for his subject-matter. It may have been something as simple as his gentle voice — a slight hesitancy in speech with an ever-present inquisitive tone.  I confess that my study group spent hours imitating that voice (one of us who shall remain nameless with much success).  We did so without any sense of hostility or meanness — but rather as a mark of our affection for his teaching and our sense that his class was a shared experience.  And it was not by any means an easy one — the reading assignments were enormous with Rubin assuming we all knew the material so we could take the class discussion to a more critical level. I still have my notes (the only ones that I’ve kept). I was amazed to revisit them yesterday to see just how much we covered that year in history, doctrine and theory.  I’ve never had another class like it.

Beyond the classroom, Professor Rubin was a thoughtful adviser.  Conveniently located on the way to the cafeteria, his office door was always open.   He welcomed students in to ask questions about class or the oft-discussed career question – “So, exactly, how does one become an international lawyer?”  He never rushed students off (even if we’d interrupted one of his many Minesweeper computer games). I treasured those conversations, and the chance to soak in his knowledge, his experience, and his many, many books. I have a shelf-long collection of green volumes of the American Journal of International Law in my office today for no other reason than Rubin had one.  In later semesters our conversations deepened and I gained insights into key sources and research methods.  To this day, I’m reluctant to cite a secondary source when a primary one is at hand since I picture Professor Rubin watching over me and shaking his head, reminding me he expects nothing less.

I will always be most indebted to Professor Rubin for his willingness to go beyond advice to action. In the summer of 1994 I was (unhappily) a temporary secretary in Suffolk University’s physical plant. The job was in the sub-basement below the actual basement.  It was hard to see how this was going to advance my dreams of becoming an international lawyer until I got a call from Jeffrey Bates, a partner at Goodwin Proctor at the time.  Another former student of Rubin’s, he needed a legal clerk to do some research, and Professor Rubin had recommended me. Overnight, I transferred onto a large and intensive research project that laid the foundations for all that followed.  I have no doubts that the Goodwin clerkship made it possible for me to join Steptoe and Johnson as an associate, which in turn led me to the State Department, and eventually Temple Law.  All this from one recommendation by Professor Rubin (a recommendation I’d not even asked him to make).  Nor am I alone in this experience.  Generations of Fletcher students sought out the Rubin experience and found themselves entering the field of international law in one way or another. From that introductory class alone, four of us spent time in the Legal Adviser’s office at the U.S. Department of State; others ended up at the United Nations, in foreign ministries, and private practice.  At least three of us followed his path into the academy to teach international law.

Having been a member of international law’s “invisible college” for a few years, I know that Professor Rubin was regarded by other law professors as an academic, known for his work on piracy and unilateral declarations, and some ferocious commentary from the floor at the American Society’s Annual Meeting.  For my part, however, I choose to remember Professor Rubin as a teacher.  In later years, we kept in touch until his health began to fail.  He’d ask me to call him by his first name, Al.  I couldn’t do it.  He was and will always be my professor of international law.  A gentleman, a scholar, but above all a teacher.  May he rest in peace.

ASIL Names New Executive Director: Mark Agrast

by Duncan Hollis

Those readers who are members of the American Society of International Law know how critical the role of its Executive Director is and how great a job the previous director, Betsy Andersen did since taking on the role in 2006.  Betsy left ASIL earlier this year to run the ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative, and my former colleague from the State Department, Ron Bettauer, has been serving as an Interim Director for the last several months.  Today, I’m pleased to report ASIL announced the hiring of its newest Executive Director, Mark Agrast.  Here’s the highlights from ASIL’s news release:

The American Society of International Law (ASIL) announces the appointment of Mark D. Agrast to serve as the Society’s eighth executive director beginning October 20, 2014 . . . Agrast, who is an ASIL member, currently serves as deputy assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legislative Affairs, where he has worked since 2009. . . Prior to joining the Justice Department, Agrast was a senior vice president and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress from 2003 to 2009, and from 1992 to 2003 he held senior staff positions with two members of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Agrast previously practiced international law with the Washington office of Jones Day.  He also has served in numerous leadership capacities in the ABA, including as a member of its Board of Governors and its Executive Committee, a past chair of the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities and the Commission on Immigration, and current chair of the Commission on Disability Rights.  He is a longtime member of the ABA’s House of Delegates.  Agrast has co-chaired the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association (now the National LGBT Bar) and served as that organization’s ABA Delegate.  He has also been a leader of the World Justice Project since its inception and has played a central role in designing and implementing its Rule of Law Index, a quantitative assessment measure of the extent to which countries adhere to the rule of Law.  Agrast graduated summa cum laude from Case Western Reserve University, pursued his postgraduate studies as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, and received his J.D. in 1985 from Yale Law School, where he was editor in chief of the Yale Journal of International Law. 

 

IHL’s Era of Application?

by Duncan Hollis

Today marks the 150th Anniversary of the signing of the first Geneva Convention — the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field.  12 States signed it on August 22, 1864, and the treaty went on to have 57 parties before being replaced by later Geneva Conventions in 1906, 1929 and 1949.  The ICRC is using the occasion to make a call for more action on international humanitarian law and to spread knowledge about that law more generally (including a 4 minute video on the Rules of War in a Nutshell).  

It’s interesting to think about the full arc of IHL that this anniversary represents. It seems we’ve gone from decades of iteration — where States and others worked to hammer out what rules actually exist — to what is now much more an era of application.  Today’s IHL debates (many of which we’ve hosted here in recent weeks) regularly revolve around where, when and how specific rules apply to particular cases.  Or, they debate which rules exist only in treaty form versus those that have the status of customary international law.  Even in areas of new technology, the prevailing effort is to explain how existing rules govern by analogy (see, e.g., the Tallinn Manual).  These are all important and even laudatory causes.  But it does leave me with a question:  Is the corpus of IHL now largely complete, or should we expect another round of law generation akin to the Geneva Convention projects of 150 and 75 years ago?  Simply put, is there any new IHL to be made, and, if so, what should it be?   

Is Violating “Serious Obligations” of the INF Treaty the same as its “Material Breach”?

by Duncan Hollis

A few hours ago, the NY Times broke a story that the United States views Russian tests of a ground-launched missile as violating the 1987 INF treaty, formally (and lengthily) titled, “The Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics On The Elimination Of Their Intermediate-Range And Shorter-Range Missiles”.  According to the story, the State Department will publicly issue a report that says, among other things:

The United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the I.N.F. treaty not to possess, produce or flight test a ground launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles,”

In addition, President Obama has notified Russian President Putin of the U.S. charges in a letter delivered today.

The U.S. move adds a new brick to the wall of tensions building in the U.S.-Russian relationship (others include Crimea, Russian support for Eastern Ukrainian separatists, the MH17 tragedy, not to mention Edward Snowden’s continuing presence in Moscow).  I assume the timing of the U.S. accusations is no accident.  Moreover, I find it interesting that in so many of these recent crises with Russia, the United States has consistently relied on law and legal argumentation to push against Russia’s actions (or inaction).  This case may be the most extreme example of such an approach since the issue here is entirely one of international law and treaty interpretation.  As such, it’s very much in the wheelhouse of Opinio Juris and its readers. I thought I’d start the conversation with a few preliminary thoughts (emphasis on the “preliminary” since we don’t have too many details to go on as yet).

For starters, the precise language used to describe Russia’s tests — a violation of its obligations under the I.N.F. Treaty” — appears quite significant (especially where it comes after reportedly extensive deliberation). Certainly, the concept of a violation is easy to grasp and has important political implications. For treaty lawyers, however, the term “violation” is not the language we’d expect to see where there’s non-compliance with a treaty’s terms. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT), which sets the customary international law rules in these cases, describes violations in terms of a treaty’s “breach”  More specifically, it articulates a set of remedies where breaches are “material” (see VCLT Article 60 here).  In this case, however, that key adjective — “material” — is nowhere to be found, suggesting the United States is not looking to invoke this VCLT provision.  But even if it were, in a move that has stumped generations of international law students, the VCLT’s remedies for a treaty’s material breach are quite limited — they entitle the non-breaching party to suspend or terminate its own obligations under the treaty in whole or in part (the VCLT also adds some procedural hurdles but these are largely ignored in State practice). Of course, there’s no evidence suggesting that the U.S. has any intention of suspending or terminating the INF Treaty; on the contrary, U.S. interests seem to lie squarely on keeping Russia obligated by the treaty as long as possible and forestalling any Russian move to withdraw from the INF Treaty (which Article XV allows it to do).  Simply put, the United States does not appear to consider Russia’s behavior as a material breach of the INF treaty nor want the remedies that label conveys; such a path would actually undercut the stability of the INF treaty’s continued performance for which the United States is pushing.

Second, just because the VCLT remedies are undesirable does not foreclose the United States from all legal leverage in this case. By using the term “violation . . . of obligations” the United States may be invoking a different set of international law rules … those of State responsibility.  Although the United States has been ambivalent to the UN’s Draft Articles on State Responsibility, those articles elaborate a detailed sets of obligations, rights and remedies where a State commits an internationally wrongful act (defined to include a breach of treaty obligations).  The offending State is required to cease (and not repeat) non-compliant behavior and the injured State(s) may engage in “counter-measures” to induce such a return to compliance. These counter-measures may include behavior previously categorized as a retorsion (lawful behavior such as canceling foreign assistance done in response to a prior breach) and a reprisal (behavior that would be unlawful but for the existence of the prior breach).  At present, the types of U.S. responses on offer described in Michael Gordon’s story are likely retorsions, but I assume other measures, including reprisals, could follow if Russia does not respond appropriately.

Taken together, these moves lend support to Bruno Simma and Christian Tams argument in my book that the law of state responsibility has proven more attractive to States than the VCLT’s remedies for treaty breach. That said, I do not mean to suggest that the VCLT is entirely irrelevant to this case.  On the contrary, its provisions on interpretation (Articles 31-33) are likely central to the U.S. claim of a Russian violation.  What’s more, I’d expect Russia to offer its own interpretation to the contrary employing the same interpretative framework (not to mention counter-claims of U.S. violations as described in tonight’s story).

All in all, there’s quite a bit here that should be of interest not just to those who care about arms control and nonproliferation, but international law and international relations more generally.  I’d be interested to hear what others think the U.S. claim suggests and how you see things playing out? Comments welcome.

2013 U.S. Digest Now Available

by Duncan Hollis

Just a quick note for those of you who, like me, have a fondness for the Digest of U.S. Practice in International Law; the 2013 volume is now available on the State Department’s website (see here).   I find the Digest to be one of the great resources on U.S. views of international law; it regularly includes letters, reports, and other documents that are hard (if not impossible) to locate elsewhere. In doing so, it also offers a contemporary glimpse of where the Executive Branch stands on manifold questions of international law and practice. Here’s how the accompanying press release describes this year’s Digest and the series as a whole:

The Department of State is pleased to announce the release of the 2013 Digest of United States Practice in International Law, covering developments during calendar year 2013. The Digest provides the public with a record of the views and practice of the Government of the United States in public and private international law. The official edition of the 2013 Digest is available exclusively on the State Department’s website at: www.state.gov/s/l/c8183.htm. Past Digests covering 1989 through 2012 are also available on the State Department’s website. The Digest is edited by the Office of the Legal Adviser.

The Digest traces its history back to an 1877 treatise by John Cadwalader, which was followed by multi-volume encyclopedias covering selected areas of international law. The Digest later came to be known to many as “Whiteman’s” after Marjorie Whiteman, the editor from 1963-1971. Beginning in 1973, the Office of the Legal Adviser published the Digest on an annual basis, changing its focus to documentation current to the year. Although publication was temporarily suspended after 1988, the office resumed publication in 2000 and has since produced volumes covering 1989 through 2012. A cumulative index covering 1989-2006 was published in 2007, and an updated edition of that index, covering 1989-2008, was published in 2010.

New ILO Treaty on Forced Labor Victims

by Duncan Hollis

With all the talk of the End of Treaties and Treaty Survival, it’s worth noting that the wheels of multilateral treaty-making have not come to a complete stop.  Earlier today, the ILO adopted a Protocol to ILO Convention No. 29, the 1930 Forced Labour Convention.  On paper, the 1930 Convention was a success — it currently has 177 parties.  But it’s also considered outdated within the human rights community, which has emphasized the continuing and significant costs of forced labor in humanitarian and economic terms, necessitating new legal tools to limit or mitigate the effects of this horrible practice.

Some of the 2014 Protocol’s provisions are standard treaty fare on modern global problems — i.e., requiring “national” plans of action and domestic legislation on forced labor issues.  Other provisions reflect the need to update the 84 year old Convention itself (i.e., deleting provisions on forced labor in overseas “colonies”).  The heart of the treaty appears to be Article 4:

Article 4
1. Each Member shall ensure that all victims of forced or compulsory labour, irrespective of their presence or legal status in the national territory, have access to appropriate and effective remedies, such as compensation.

2. Each Member shall, in accordance with the basic principles of its legal system, take the necessary measures to ensure that competent authorities are entitled not to prosecute or impose penalties on victims of forced or compulsory labour for their involvement in unlawful activities which they have been compelled to commit as a direct consequence of being subjected to forced or compulsory labour.

I’d be interested in reactions from those who follow the ILO and forced labor subjects more closely. Is this Protocol significant in the ongoing efforts to deal with human trafficking and forced labor? How important is the expansion of the right to relief to include migrants who might otherwise be labeled “illegal” via their immigration status?  And is the “entitlement not to prosecute” that significant a requirement?  It presumably still gives State authorities the ability to prosecute forced labor victims engaged in ‘unlawful’ behavior like sex work or drug offenses even if they were coerced into doing so. Thus, it seems more like an aspirational goal than a provision that will mandate changes in State behavior. Comments most welcome.

A Post-Snowden world? Criminalizing Chinese cyberespionage

by Duncan Hollis

Three quick (and thus tentative) thoughts on the BIG news out of the Justice Department a few minutes ago, announcing criminal charges against five officers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army for hacking various U.S. industries, including Westinghouse and US Steel.  The Justice Department offered fairly detailed descriptions of how the hackers obtained information that had direct economic consequences for US companies, whether in terms of stealing design specs or pricing plans.  As a result, I don’t have much doubt that the evidence establishes behavior violating U.S. cyber crime laws as written. That said, this is still, as Holder himself admitted, an unprecedented move.  It’s not every day the U.S. government charges military officers with criminal behavior that was presumptively authorized by the foreign government itself.  Doing so suggests, not too subtly, that the real criminal here was China:

When a foreign nation uses military or intelligence resources and tools against an American executive or corporation to obtain trade secrets or sensitive business information for the benefit of its state-owned companies, we must say, ‘enough is enough.’ This Administration will not tolerate actions by any nation that seeks to illegally sabotage American companies and undermine the integrity of fair competition in the operation of the free market. This case should serve as a wake-up call to the seriousness of the ongoing cyberthreat. These criminal charges represent a groundbreaking step forward in addressing that threat.

For more background, you can watch the press conference here or read the prepared statements by Holder and others.

My first reaction was that these charges aren’t really about prosecuting the named officers, but of signaling to the world that the United States wants to change the status quo when it comes to State-sponsored cyber-exploitation.  The fact that States engage in cyberexploitation has long been widely known, but so far, the prevailing response has been a shrug of the shoulders — the theory being that spying cannot be regulated away so why bother trying.  These charges suggest a political effort, however, to do just that — i.e., to try and change the volume or nature of State-sponsored cyber-exploitations at least when it comes to impacts on private commercial actors.  I say a “political effort” since I very much doubt these charges will amount to much within the U.S. legal system.  Simply put, these five officers are not going to appear in a US courtroom to face the charges against them. I suppose it’s possible (although implausible) that China could express surprise at the U.S. evidence and announce its own investigation with some lip service about shutting rogue actors down or holding accountable those responsible. But, even in such a case, I can’t see China handing them over to the United States.  Much more likely, I suspect will be Chinese protestations of “trumped-up” charges or “false” evidence by the U.S. Government.  As such, assuming they don’t vacation abroad, these officers are unlikely to face any negative consequences; on the contrary, I’d bet they’ll probably be lionized in some ways at home.

My second reaction was that of a law professor, asking in a hypothetical world where these officers somehow did end up before a U.S. court, what would happen then?  I assume there’d be a claim by the defendants of sovereign immunity and, for the reasons stated above, I doubt the Chinese government would dispute such immunity.  This would, in turn, raise interesting questions about whether the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act would grant immunity from prosecution to these officers or whether the Justice Department could successfully invoke one of the statute’s exceptions. Based on the repeated references in this morning’s press conference to the ‘commercial’ nature of the Chinese cyberexploits, I’d guess DOJ’s theory is that it can proceed under the FSIA’s commercial activities exception, which affords federal jurisdiction to cases “in which the action is based upon a commercial activity carried on in the United States by the foreign state; or upon an act performed in the United States in connection with a commercial activity of the foreign state elsewhere; or upon an act outside the territory of the United States in connection with a commercial activity of the foreign state elsewhere and that act causes a direct effect in the United States.”  I know many of our readers are expert in sovereign immunity issues, so I’d be interested in your reactions — do these officers have a legitimate claim for sovereign immunity?  Or, might they invoke some other status-based immunities and with what likely results?

My third reaction was that these charges represent the official start of a Post-Snowden era. For the better part of a year, Snowden’s revelations have dominated almost all discussions of cyber activities involving the United States.  To be sure, the United States has tried to rebut some of the allegations or recast others in a more positive light, with pretty mixed (some might say poor) results.  Indeed, every time, the United States tried to move on, there was some “new” revelation waiting in the wings to forestall that effort.  In recent weeks, however, Snowden-related disclosures have slowed, while at the same time the United States has had some diplomatic successes (see, e.g., the NETmundial final statement ).  Thus, there’s certainly space today that wasn’t present a few months ago for the United States to try and refocus the conversation.  I wonder if this explains the timing of these charges.  After all, U.S. complaints against China were a central plank in U.S. cyber-policy pre-Snowden, so it’s not surprising they’ve been looking for an opportunity to get back on the offensive when the circumstances were ripe for it.  Whether this offensive will be successful remains, of course, to be seen.  It’ll bear close watching how China responds to these charges, both publicly (i.e., in defending its officers or launching counter-charges against US officials) and privately (will there by an escalation of cyber operations by China or others).  But whatever China does, I suspect we’re going to witness renewed attention to the question of whether all cyber-espionage is really the same (i.e., can we distinguish, as the U.S. urges, between State-sponsored hacking for national security interests vs. State-sponsored hacking for economic gain).  I’d hope, moreover, that part of that conversation will involve the question of what role law can play, if any, in regulating cyber-espionage, whether as a matter of domestic or international law.